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Wyo. cyclist recalls tragic discovery

By Jim Hughes
Denver Post Staff Writer

Oct. 15 - Aaron Kreifels first met Matthew Shepard in a dream last Thursday night, the night after he discovered his fellow University of Wyoming student badly beaten, barely alive and tied up to a fence outside of Laramie.

Although Shepard was in Fort Collins by then, kept alive by an array of life-support machines in Poudre Valley Hospital's intensive-care unit, Kreifels said the gay student, who was beaten beyond recognition, allegedly by two young Laramie roofers, perhaps because he was gay, came to visit his rescuer in a dream that night. Kreifels doesn't remember much of the dream, but he said Wednesday that he awoke the next morning comforted by the vague sensation of having met the person he found in such bad shape two days before.

Although early reports indicated that two mountain bikers had discovered Shepard on the crude fence on an old, double-rutted road, Kreifels was alone that evening, struggling on his mountain bike through deep sand and for some reason ignoring a desire to turn back and find another, easier way back to town. Before he knew it, he had fallen. He was on the ground, his front wheel broken beyond repair. He was unhurt, but what he saw as he got up struck him cold.

""I got up and noticed something out of the corner of my eye,'' he said from his room in a freshman dorm at the University of Wyoming on Wednesday. "At first I thought it was a scarecrow, so I didn't think much of it. Then I went around and noticed it was a real person. I checked to see if he was conscious or not, and when I found out he wasn't, I ran and got help as fast as I could.''

As the former high school crosscountry runner traversed the quarter- to half-mile of scrub prairie between him and the nearest house in the nearby Sherman Hills subdivision, his thoughts froze before quickly accelerating.

"It was distressing. I was panicked for a couple minutes, because I wanted to make sure I could do all I could do to help save him,'' he said.

Exactly a week after his tragic discovery, Kreifels, 18, an architectural engineering major from Grand Island, Neb., said he tries not to think about the condition in which he found the classmate he had never seen before. Authorities say Shepard's assailants repeatedly beat him with the butt of a .357 Magnum, fracturing his skull. Kreifels doesn't talk about it.

"I don't really want to go into details about that,'' he said.

That night, Kreifels tried to keep what had happened to himself. He had to tell a few friends to relieve the emotional stress of his discovery, but he feared that whoever had so viciously beaten Shepard might come after him if he talked in public. Once Albany County sheriff's deputies arrested Russell Henderson, 21, and Aaron McKinney, 22, and their two suspected after-the-fact accomplices, Kristen Price, 18, and Chasity Pasley, 20, he felt a little more comfortable. His friends eventually told a few people, and word of his involvement gradually spread, he said.

"I can't even grasp what these people were thinking, how they could do such a thing,'' he said of the men, who could face the death sentence for their alleged killing of Shepard, who died early Monday. "There's no excuse for it. Whatever their excuse is, it's meaningless, because there's just no excuse for taking another's life.''

Kreifels said he would probably ride the same trail again, despite the memories it might evoke. "I'll ride there again. I love riding, and I'm not going to stop,'' he said. "I like to ride alone. It's kind of a spiritual thing for me, just getting out there and stopping and looking around. That's kind of an escape for me.''

Kreifels said he thinks God intervened the night he found Shepard, creating a set of circumstances that would allow the beating victim to be reconnected, however briefly, with his family and friends.

"It was an act of God for me even to make it that far,'' he said. "I was in some deep sand, and I told myself a bunch of times I should turn around and take another way back. I can think of no other reason than God intervening. He wanted me to find Matt.''

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